I vividly remember the first time I went down a mine. I am claustrophobic and it felt like hell on earth to me, descending in the lift into Stygian gloom. When I was down there, the back-breaking low tunnels, the smell of dust and damp and the unexpected heat all took me by surprise and I was thankful that neither myself or my ancestors had to endure that (to my knowledge anyway). I was particularly moved by the plight of the pit ponies, the hardy little beasts stuck down in that nightmare through no choice of their own. I didn’t see at the time that their human masters often had no choice about going down the mine either.
Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey is the story of both mining in the early twentieth century and the story of the downfall of a family that owned mines. I picked this book up as (if you’ve read this blog for a while you know of my love of stately homes and their stories) it centred around one of the biggest unknown stately homes in the UK. I can’t quite remember where or how I heard of Wentworth Woodhouse, but it has one of the longest frontages of any stately home and yet is virtually forgotten. Wentworth was bought in 1999 for £1.5m which, this book claims, was cheaper per yard than a council house in nearby Rotherham. How did it come to that?
The fortunes of this great house and the family that lived there were tied to the South Yorkshire coal fields. With the backdrop of the depression, the General Strike and World War II, they didn’t stand a chance. The coal mines were nationalised in 1946 and despite that fact that the Fitzwilliams were generally recognised as the best of private employers, there was, and could be, very little objection to that given the general circumstances of appalling private safety records, exploitation and hardship for mining communities. What the Fitzwilliams and local people objected to alike though was the near destruction of Wentworth House by open cast mining. After WWII, Britain was desperate for coal and, although Earl Fitzwilliam had already opened up most of his estate for mining, the government of the time set their sights on the park and gardens as well. One of those most moving passages in the book describes when the diggers moved in:
The brutes of contractors rushed in, two days before they were due to start, mowing down shrubs, trees and specimen Rhododendrons of every kind, to say nothing of miles of every sort and kind of daffodils – things we had collected for years and the overburden is to be put 50 ft high in the gardens up to the gallery window. It is absolute vandalism, as the coal could have been got far better from below…they just would not listen – 10 ft of the spire of the church has already gone, and I should think the house is bound to crack. It is utterly heartbreaking. Letter from Maud Fitzwilliam to Lucia, Viscountess Galway.
Luckily, the house did not crack, but the park and gardens were ruined and the family looked out on slag heaps piled high against their windows. It was convincingly proved that the coal mined in this way was not good quality and, as Lady Maud said, there were alternatives that would not have been so spiteful. The Labour government of the day appeared to have turned the quest for a national resource into a punishment of the privileged. I think anyone with any sense would deplore the wanton destruction of beauty and feel distress watching years of work put into someone’s home being ripped up. I read this with a very bitter taste in my mouth and I don’t think there is any better symbol of the violence of this activity than the fact it snapped the church tower.
In the book, there is a picture of what open cast mining looked like at Wentworth, but here is a modern picture so you can imagine how hurt the earth looks and what kind of destruction is involved.
I found Black Diamonds very interesting. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about coal mining in the twentieth century and the people associated with it. It was also the story of a fascinating family and home. My only criticisms were that I felt the beginning and ending were matched a bit too conveniently. The author had set this book up as a story of the secrets of an aristocratic family and the lengths they went to keep them and she was determined to stick to that line. I felt that theory didn’t entirely fit by the end of the books and it was actually more about a compelling snapshot of the end of the great country houses and the tragedy of coal mining and the Fitzwilliams (and others whose lives they touched). I also felt that the subtitle, ‘The rise and fall of an English dynasty’ was not entirely correct as there was little about the rise, more about the fall. However, that did not diminish my enjoyment of it and so if you are interested in learning a bit more about this period, Yorkshire mining and how British society changed forever, this is for you!